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Luther: The Angry Teacher of Grace

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In the chapter on When Sin Won't Let Go Mark Galli illustrates that even the greatest of leaders have besetting sins. He does this by illustrating the anger of the great reformer, Martin Luther.

He had been preaching in his church for years, but the longer he preached, the more discouraged he grew. People just didn’t get it. They gladly heard him, but instead of rising to discipleship, they slithered into lethargy. Everyone praised his preaching, but he complained, “No one acts accordingly, but instead the people become so crude, cold, and lazy that it is a shame.”

For instance, he started teaching that worship is primarily an act of gratitude to God. Attending worship, he said, did not earn points with God. People loved the new teaching. And worship attendance dropped.

At one point, he was so fed up, he announced he would no longer preach to his congregation; he went on strike.

The “necessity of preaching” couldn’t keep him away from the pulpit for long, but anger and resentment dogged him his whole life. A year before he died, while on a trip, he decided not to return to his home town or church. He wrote his wife, “My heart has become cold, so that I do not like to be there any longer.” People were indifferent to his preaching. Some had begun to mock him, asking him what gave him the right to question everything they had been taught.

“I am tired of this city and do not wish to return,” he wrote. He would rather “eat the bread of a beggar than torture and upset my poor old age and final days with the filth at Wittenberg.”

It took the determined efforts of city elders to convince Martin Luther to return.

This is not the Martin Luther we’ve grown to know and love. That Martin Luther boldly faced the ecclesiastical machinery of medieval Catholicism, not to mention the military might of the Holy Roman Empire, declaring, “Here I stand, and I can do no other!” That Martin Luther was a decisive and penetrating theologian who recovered the grand essentials: Scripture only, faith only, grace only.

But this Martin Luther? Saints aren’t supposed to be angry. Christian heroes aren’t supposed to give up.

And pastors aren’t supposed to sin as much as we do. In our honest moments, we admit that we are not the leaders others have come to know and love. They know we counsel with empathy and compassion, but they haven’t heard us rage at our spouses in fits of temper.

As pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders, we each have a besetting sin: lust, greed, temper, sloth, whatever. We struggle to overcome it, praying, pleading, fasting, straining. But it doesn’t go away. It may get worse.

We begin to wonder what in the world we’re doing in ministry. “How can God use someone like me? How can I, with this persistent sin, make any contribution to the kingdom?”

As a pastor with my share of besetting sins, I thought long and hard and often about such questions. I found answers only when I began studying the lives of former preachers, people like Martin Luther and George Whitefield, great Christians with great besetting sins.

In short, Luther’s besetting sin was anger. He was in many respects a violent, coarse, ill-tempered, cranky man. He was also used mightily by God to recover, oddly enough, the doctrine of grace.

Through faith by grace — this theme permeates his commentaries, which both Protestants and Catholics today draw on for insight. Take a passage from his commentary on Galatians:

“Christ, according to the proper and true definition, is no Moses, no lawgiver, no tyrant, but a mediator for sins, a free giver of grace, righteousness, and life; who gave himself, not for our merits, holiness, righteousness, and godly life, but for our sins.”

Grace saturates his catechisms, even where we don’t expect it. For instance, in his Small Catechism, he expounds on the first article of the Apostle’s Creed (“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”):

“I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given and still preserves to me my body and soul, my eyes and ears, and all members, my reasons and all the power of my soul, together with food and raiment, home and family, and all my property; that he daily provides abundantly for all the needs of my life, protects me from all danger, and guards and keeps me from all evil; and that he does this purely out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without merit in me.”

Grace accents his hymns, sung throughout Christendom today, especially his masterpiece, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God:

Did we in our own strength confide,

Our striving would be losing;

Were not the right man on our side,

The man of God’s own choosing.

Dost ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He,

Lord Sabaoth His name,

From age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

Through faith by grace: the great contribution of Martin Luther, the angry man.

Source: Richard Exley, Mark Galli and John Ortberg, Dangers, Toils & Snares : Resisting the Hidden Temptations of Ministry, Mastering ministry's pressure points (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah Books, 1994), 159.

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